by Paul A. Toth
Whenever Janet arrived at the mall, the early morning walkers, senior citizens all, had already begun their march. It would take them round to Crowley's, west to Sears, north to the cineplex and back home to JC Penny's. They were proud as Marines and arrived every morning to follow doctors' orders, walking in the heat in winter and the air conditioning in summer. They moved fiercely, leaning, mustering gravity in their struggle. There was a mania in their stalk, a clutching and a frenzy. Meanwhile, percolating with nervousness, Janet would open the gate with a jerk of her hand, sending it upwards in shivering rattles as the Nikes and Reeboks clip-clopped behind her. She would pull the gate down, head to the receiving room in back and switch on the lights. Then the retail sun would rise: There was light.
It began exactly this way on Janet's last day at the bookstore.
She went as usual to the kiosk area in front and removed the drawers from the safe, then plugged in the calculator. She hated that calculator. Whenever she counted the money the figures never balanced. This was supposed to be a rare occurrence, but not for her. Once she even added fifty cents of her own money to balance the figures. Later that day the assistant manager informed her the cash drawers were fifty cents over.
As she performed the calculations, overeager shoppers stared at her through the gate, silently demanding to know why fifteen minutes mattered so much -- couldn't that gate come up now? There must have been a book on one of the talk shows that morning. Certain books stirred people up, attracted them to the mall. Already the phones were ringing and she quickly learned that on this particular day the TV book was about the cancer preventing effects of orgasms.
One could tell almost anything about the customers by the books they bought. Most of them had no shame at all. But Janet did, even about the books other people purchased. She was easily embarrassed. For one thing, she had quite large feet. Other than that she was fairly attractive, but people noticed she was on guard against her feet pointing towards each other. There was simply a weird angularity about her body. It never joined into spaces, but only jutted into them. She disturbed the peace. She was a keystone cop.
So Janet knew it was going to be especially funny to the customers when they set a book about orgasms in front of her. She would look at her feet and then back at the cash register. She would turn the book over and scan it. The customer would casually remove a wallet and search for the exact change, not at all concerned for time, as Janet slipped the book into a bag. And then, even though the wallet would contain plenty enough cash for the book, the customer would decide to charge it, because that would prolong Janet's little comedy routine. She'd have to take the card, glide it through the machine and hand it back. Next, she would be asked to tear the carbon up into four sections.
She unplugged the calculator (59 cents off the mark today) and looked at the schedule. She had a helper coming -- Kristy -- but Kristy was late again. Kristy was supposed to arrive in time for Janet to take the deposit to the bank first thing, but Kristy was always late. Kristy was curvy and slipped between the holes in space. Janet believed that if one took a compass and tried to measure Kristy's natural grace and coordination, the compass would melt into frothy bubbles.
It was time to open the store. When she lifted the gate all but one of the customers headed straight for the pile of orgasm books. Meanwhile, Janet called Kristy on the phone, curious what today's excuse would be. However, there was no answer, only four rings, then a click and a beep for a message, without any greeting at all.
She hung up. Already the line of customers was five deep, and there was much impatient toe tapping, finger twiddling and ear flicking. But instead of greeting the customers, Janet knelt down in front of the safe and dialed the numbers. It was 70L-67R-25R-48L. She was on 67R when she heard a scratchy voice: "Miss?" The voice was a little sharper when Janet twirled the knob to 25R: "Miss," the voice insisted. By the time Janet opened the safe and removed the green deposit pouch, the woman was peering around the corner. Her eyes were cowlike in super-magnifying eyeglasses, lips were pursed in irritated need-you-nowness. "Miss? Do you work here?"
Janet looked at her, without response. Some torturer inside her took over. She just watched the woman heat up with rage.
"Miss, do you work here? I'm speaking to you. I'm asking you a question."
A man came around the corner. He wore a blue shirt and a blue jacket and his tie danced with color. "Is there some kind of problem here?" He waved the book. He was in a hurry to get to work with his orgasm book and it did not phase him that the woman next to him was staring at the title. It would not have surprised Janet if he had shouted, "I'm trying to buy a book about orgasms here!"
Yet she still only watched even now as the man looked as though he might cry. He had the expression of a king whose crown had been snatched from his head. And the woman looked like some ladyship who with all the ailments and sorrows of old age must now bear the collapse of the kingdom. The man slammed the book on the counter and tilted his head. The woman's mouth made fishlike O's. "Well?" she said. Then she noticed the green pouch in Janet's hand. "I see. Were you -- were you going to --"
Janet looked at the pouch. "I wasn't," she said, but then she realized that she was, if that's what the woman was implying: She was thinking about taking the money. She returned the pouch to the safe, then went to the cash register and began ringing up the books. She noticed her feet, that they were pointing inward, against her command. She caught one of the customers smiling. She put the book in a bag, tore the charge slip up and said thank you. She did this for each customer until the store was empty and quiet.
Unfortunately, Janet's mind was often loudest in silence. It boomed and banged. To distract herself, she went to the pyramid of orgasm books and took one from the pile. It seemed to her that it was allowable for every single human being but her to touch such a book. And even now as she hurried out of the store with the book under her coat, clutched in her left armpit, she felt not uneasy about stealing it, nor leaving the store wide open without warning, but only strangely exhilarated to actually possess one of the many sex books she had sold.
Walking across the parking lot of the mall was like walking across a frozen lake: The wind was louder and the sky seemed closer and bluer. She had never noticed the grand expanse of the lot. There seemed enough space for every car in America. In the quiet boredom of the concrete lake, her mind, booming and banging, sent tracers and fireworks shooting across the blankness. She did not even ask herself where she was going, yet anyone watching would have sensed she had an urgent destination in mind. In fact, there was a lake (more real than the kind of lake the parking lot formed, but not as real as a natural body of water) to which she seemed headed. As it became visible, across Hampton Road and adjacent to the Lake Manicott Manufactured Home Community, she gradually realized that she was walking not aimlessly but toward the artificial lake. Luckily there was a traffic light where she could cross, but the road was wide and she still had to hustle to make it across before the light changed.
There were rocks along the edge of the lake where one could sit. She found a tall but flat rock just a few inches from the shoreline. She opened the book and read the first few sentences. It was written in the tone of a medical journal. She wondered if all the sex books were written that way. Yet the tone did not surprise her and in many ways confirmed her memory. The few orgasms she had experienced were exclamation points at the end of boring sentences. There was nothing vibrant about what she had felt, just a brief quivering. There was only a semblance of union. It was not unlike turning on the lights at the mall: It was bright, but never really morning, nor did it ever become day or night. It was something like television, only seeming to happen. Like the manufactured houses, like the lake, everything seemed only to seem.
It tired her, all this seeming. Even her fingers, lit transparently red by the sun, seemed X-rayed, seemed as delicate as leaves. She shook her hand, tried to shake the swindling light out of it. It was impossible to decode, to decipher everything and everyone. It was impossible to rally numbers to her cause, forcing them to line up and march as ordered by ancient mathematicians. It was even hopeless to believe she could stand in front of inscrutable customers and guess their encrypted desires and moods.
Movies: She liked movies. You could watch a movie a hundred times, and things would happen that had to happen. They were ordained. She asked herself: "Do you want to be in a spy movie? A love movie? A cowboy movie? In a black and white movie, a color movie, a 3D movie?"
She began to rub mud over her face, working it into her complexion, certain she was becoming pondlike, subterranean. To dig beneath things was to be rooted in everything. It was to become more real than anything. It came to her, as she rubbed mud around her eye sockets, that no one could lie with a mouthful of mud. She began to eat the mud, filling her mouth.
Meanwhile a man from inside the nearest manufactured home watched her as he prepared coffee. When he saw her take the mud into her mouth, he became concerned. He could not be sure of her motives. She seemed to be -- he was not sure what she was doing -- but she seemed to be doing something, and he wanted to know what it was. It seemed important to know. He wanted an answer, a definite answer. He called the police. When they arrived he followed them to the woman, who was coughing up the mud and could not talk. The police questioned her for some time, but she could not answer. After twenty minutes they gave up and left, unable to detain her for eating mud. Janet cleaned the mud out of her mouth with her finger while the man watched. He said, "Do you need help? What's your name?"
Her tongue was gritty from the mud and she spat out a chunk of dirt. "Kristy," she was going to answer. And while it was true Janet was aware she would be lying to say so, she felt a little more comfortable, as though there were more air in the world, more space. The holes between places seemed to enjoin her, enveloping and welcoming her, like good friends who knew everything and without asking, without saying a word, could read her mind and assure her that everything -- everything -- had changed. She knew it might only seem this way, but still -- still she noticed the man looking at her body, at the white skin between the splashes of mud. He was trying to figure out what she was thinking, what she wanted from him. She watched him, enjoying his confusion, knowing she held the moment like a child's hand. She would lead it, would guide the moment now. And the man seemed to be so aware of his hands, his feet, and kept readjusting his position, slipping his hands into his pockets, taking them out, watching, figuring, calculating, unable to solve the mystery, unable to find a definite answer. She stood there for some time and then finally walked away, without saying a word to him. Her name was Kristy, Kristy, and she was inscrutable, and everything seemed as real as real could seem.
*Title from the recording "Environments 1: Psychologically Ultimate Seashore" - 1987 Atlantic Recording Corporation.
|© 2000 Paul A. Toth
This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
The short stories of emerging American writer Paul A. Toth have appeared in The Blue Moon Review, Satire, Pif and many others. He is currently at work on his novel Fizz and screenplay Black as Day. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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